Environmental Issues Surround $1B Watts Redevelopment Project

WATTS (CBSLA.com) – Amid growing environmental concerns, a groundbreaking ceremony was held Monday afternoon for the first phase of a $1 billion redevelopment of the Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts.

The plan seeks to convert the 700-unit site into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood of 1,410 units with 160,000 square feet retail space, nine acres of green space and a new recreation center at East 99th Place and Laurel Place.

“We’ve got a housing crisis, and we need to build more units,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told the crowd at the groundbreaking. “And that starts right here, right now, today.”

The plan has been in the works for nearly a decade and was delayed due to funding shortages and the discovery that soil at part of the site was contaminated with lead and other toxins from its past use as a steel factory.

CBS2 obtained documents from the Los Angeles Unified School District which shows lead and arsenic contamination on the football field and baseball field of Jordan High School, which shares a border with the new development.

Monika Shankar with health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles told CBS2 Monday that an underground plume of toxic chemicals, including trichloroethylene, has been discovered underneath the development.

“Which is a very harmful chemical, especially for children and pregnant mothers,” Shankar said.

Sources with LAUSD told CBS2 they recently discovered an underground plume of contamination under Jordan High School itself as well.

“We’re discovering that there are multiple plumes migrating under this community, we’re discovering increasing levels of soil contamination throughout this community,” Shankar said.

The school district said it has already cleaned up the lead and arsenic contamination from the baseball field and other outdoor areas of the campus. However, the new plume discovered underneath the campus has prompted a disagreement between the city and LAUSD. The district has sued the city for more than $1 million over the issue of who should pay for that cleanup.

Shankar and other environmental experts are calling on the city to hold off until the source and exact location of the underground plume can be discovered.

Garcetti responded to the environmental concerns Monday.

“We want to make sure that everything is remediated here, that’s part of the deal, we can’t have folks, just because of their zip code, living in places that are dangerous,” Garcetti told CBS2. “The school district is remediating their land. This is an industrial area from way back. We’ve gotten the folks who own the land to pay up $30 million to us to do that remediation. So we’re going to continue, we’ll be testing that every step of the way. We’re not gonna put new people in new homes, that’s old dirt, we’re gonna make sure that it’s remediated and that it’s safe for everybody to be here.”

The “phase 1A” of the project will include 115 rental apartments in 12 buildings on 3.15 acres.

A “demolition” ceremony at Jordan Downs was held last year that featured people taking sledge hammers to some of the buildings, which were built in the 1940s for World War II workers and converted into public housing in the 1950s.

Over the decades, Jordan Downs gained a notorious reputation as one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden areas of the city, as it was one of the flashpoints of the Watts riots in 1965 and also the location of violent gang warfare in the 1980s and early 90s.

(©2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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